Prior to the NBA bubble, the numbers did not paint the picture of Rajon Rondo being someone who helped the Lakers on the court this year.
Rondo had the third-worst net rating (+1.4) of any Laker, and the worst of any consistent members of the rotation this season (with apologies to Troy Daniels and Markieff Morris). The Lakers were also 8 points per 100 possessions better without Rondo (+9.4) than they were without any other Laker (other than Morris, who only played 118 minutes before the shutdown).
However, in case you missed it, the Lakers have not been good in the bubble. They had the worst net rating of any team other than the Washington Wizards in the seeding games, their defense was middle-of-the-pack after being elite all year, and their offense fell off a cliff to finish as the third-worst in Orlando (and worst of any team that made the postseason).
Those struggles can probably be attributed to a lot of things (all the time off, a lack of things to play for with seeding locked up, the loss of Avery Bradley, etc.), but it’s also led to a resurgence of the season-long debate over Rondo’s value. Now that the veteran floor general is back in the bubble after having surgery on the thumb he fractured in one of the Lakers’ first practices (he is quarantining and should be able to rejoin his teammates today), we may get to see a bit of his value from an off-the-court perspective after a weird seeding round in which something about the Lakers seemed... off.
One of his teammates, Danny Green, spoke to what Rondo can bring there after the team’s first practice for the playoffs on Saturday.
“Luckily he’s here now,” Green said. “We need his mind and his IQ. His input is going to be huge for us whether he’s playing or not to help us advance to the next step.”
When I tweeted the above quote from Green, a lot of Lakers supporters who aren’t fans of what Rondo brings rejoiced in my mentions, isolating the “whether he’s playing or not” part as evidence that Rondo may not get his spot in the rotation back. I wouldn’t necessarily read things that way, though.
What Green was likely referring to was Rondo’s original injury timeline. The Lakers initially said that Rondo’s injury would require 6-8 weeks before he was able to return to the court, and we’ve only just crossed five weeks since the injury. Rondo has a reputation for playing through pain, but it still seems unlikely that he’ll be back in the first round, just because he’d likely need some time to get his legs under him in practices, no matter how hard he was working out with Kurt Rambis outside the bubble. Anything is possible, but a first-round return is not what I’d predict.
Instead, Green was likely referring to the role that Rondo has served while trying to help his teammates remotely, and will now get to fulfill in the bubble: Honorary assistant coach. Lakers head coach Frank Vogel said soon after Rondo’s injury that he would offer Rondo the opportunity to sit in on their coaches’ meetings, and it seems Rondo has done that and more, even providing feedback for the coaches and players by watching a private video feed of the Lakers’ practices. With him back in the bubble, offering tips to his teammates and using his renowned basketball brain to aid the Lakers off the floor will be even easier.
There is also the matter that, as much as Rondo is far from a fan favorite among Lakers supporters at this point, he is a beloved presence in the locker room. He’s someone that gets along with everyone, and also has the resume to be able to call out and give advice to LeBron James and Anthony Davis (something that’s motivated Davis especially at times this season). Whatever chemistry weirdness has been going on, to whatever degree it needs to be fixed, Rondo should be able to help.
None of this is to cite Rondo’s return as some cure-all for the Lakers. More likely, this team will also get a boost from simply having every game matter again, forcing them to lock in. The Portland Trail Blazers’ defense should also help their offense get going, and for all those reasons and more, upward regression to the mean to some degree is likely coming regardless of Rondo’s presence. There is also the very real question of whether his eventual return to the lineup will negatively impact the Lakers when Dion Waiters taking his minutes has actually been one of the few on-court bright spots for the team.
All that said, Rondo clearly has value in some ways for this locker room, and given the Lakers’ struggles with ballhandling outside of LeBron, may have a role to play there, even with all of the associated drawbacks that come with that. We’ll likely get more answers on specifically where the Lakers get value from him soon, even if he doesn’t immediately return to the court. All that’s certain right now is that the Lakers can use all the help they can get, and that whatever gets them back to their prior form is a development to be welcomed, regardless of previous judgements.